Russia and Sweden’s Struggle for Supremacy: 1705–90

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A Russian Galley of 1719 Campaign: these big beasts were 40m (130ft) in length, 7m (23ft) abreast and 1.5m (5ft) deep, and included 25 pairs of oars, 2-4 guns, 90 crew and 200 soldiers. They could make five knots by oar.

Swedish Gunboat: The Udemaa was a revolutionary design, with the guns stored amidships when moving. In battle, these could be rolled and placed into the fire position, combining the function of gunboat and galley.

With its brackish waters, indented shoreline and lack of tides, the Baltic is more of a vast inland lake than a real ocean, making for difficult sailing and navigation conditions. A semi-Arctic climate imposes yet further restrictions upon sailing fleets and their use. It took all the iron will and determination of Tsar Peter the Great to found the Russian Navy in 1705 with the naval base at Kronstadt, on the Gulf of Finland. To outflank Swedish defences in Finland, Peter built a powerful galley fleet to combine with his new Europeanized army in amphibious operations.

Galleys were cheap and easy to mass produce, could easily be manned by sailors and did not require experienced naval officers to command them. Furthermore in the Baltic, like the Mediterranean Sea, the winds were often fickle and the oar was often superior to the sail. The Petrine galley measured 40m (130ft) in length, 7m (23ft) in width, had a shallow draft of only 1.5m (5ft) and was equipped with 2-4 heavy guns and 18 lighter mounted guns. With a crew of 90 sailors and 200 troops manning 24 pairs of oars, the galley could make a speed of five knots, weather and sea permitting. The hold had enough room for 30 horses, although the crew had to sleep on shore during the night.The effort expended on the galley fleet was vindicated when the Russians defeated a Swedish fleet at Gangut (Hangö Head) in August 1714, paving the way for an outright Russian occupation of Finland.

Less than five years later, Peter gathered a massive galley fleet in the Åland archipelago. His aim was to capture the Swedish capital of Stockholm. The Swedish sailing fleet would be unable to pursue the shallow-drafted galleys and would be immobilized by the lack of wind power. Numbering almost 270 vessels, including 40 ships of the line and 123 galleys, the Russian fleet set sail in late July 1719 with 26,000 troops on board.The aim was to land near Stockholm with one corps while the rest of the fleet laid waste to the long easterly Swedish coastline. The coastal raids ravaged the towns and settlements, leaving thousands of Swedes without homes. However, the great fear for the Swedes was that the capital could be reached via the narrow and shallow Stäket Sound.To prevent this, the Swedes placed a floating artillery pråm (battery deck) at the northern exit of the Staket Sound and three heavily armed galleys in the middle passage.At the eastern entry to Staket, where the Russians were expected, the Swedes built defensive works mounted by stakes and a gun battery, and manned by 500 troops. On 13 August 1719, 7000 Russian troops landed as expected at Staket but were halted and driven back by a stout Swedish defence. This may have saved Stockholm, but the Russians captured the Baltic provinces with their ports at Riga, Reval, Pernau and Viborg, in addition to Kronstadt.

The Decline of the Baltic Fleet

When Peter died in 1725, Russia had a fleet numbering 34 ships of the line, 9 frigates, hundreds of galleys, sloops, gunboats and some 25,000 experienced men, and was the strongest naval power in the Baltic. Under the next six rulers, the Baltic Fleet was allowed to deteriorate to the point where it was weaker than the Danish Navy, despite Russia’s status as a European Great Power. Compared to the army, the Baltic Fleet played a very minor role during the Seven Years War – where it was, ironically, Sweden and Russia who allied against Frederick’s Prussia. This war showed that the key role for navies in the Baltic was not maritime at all but amphibious; coastal flotillas needed to cooperate closely with the army and, in turn, both services needed to collaborate closely with the navy. If that coordination could be perfected, amphibious operations could be of great value. In the Baltic, the navies were operating close to the coastlines and under the direct operational controls of the admiralties in the capitals. This stifled initiative and independence in the naval officers, even admirals, to the detriment of the operational efficiency and combat potential of the Baltic navies. The Russians and Swedes, in their coming war, would show a fatal obsession with linear battle formations and theoretical operational procedures at a time when the British and French navies were revolutionizing naval warfare in the west. Russian and Swedish naval officers lacked combat experience, self-confidence and professional esprit de corps when compared to their Western counterparts.

Sweden had a few inherent advantages that were to give her the edge in naval warfare against Russia. After 1721, Sweden became a maritime trading nation in her own right with a considerable merchant fleet that could provide a useful pool of experienced sailors in time of war. Furthermore, Sweden, unlike her Russian foe, never allowed her sailing ships to deteriorate – even at the nadir of Sweden’s military misfortunes in the 1740s, the building and repair of battleships were maintained. Having been at the receiving end of an attack by Russian galleys in 1719, the Swedes also built up a respectable flotilla of galleys based at the naval fortress of Sveaborg in Finland and at Stockholm. The Swedish Admiralty at Karlskrona was also turning out a larger number of professionally trained naval cadets and encouraging their cadets, as well as their officers, to join the Western navies for experience.

The Russian Navy staged a remarkable recovery under the rule of Catherine II, who sought to establish Russian hegemony over the Black Sea. Although she had no practical knowledge or hands-on experience of naval matters like Peter I, Catherine had a sound grasp of strategy and was just as ruthless in pursuing her aim of expanding Russia to the west and south. The full extent of Russia’s naval recovery and new-found power was demonstrated in 1769-1770, when a fleet was sent, with some British assistance, to the Mediterranean. The expedition was a great success since the Russian Fleet managed to defeat and sink most of the superior Turkish Navy in a single battle at Chesme on 8 July 1770. There were rich pickings for Russia in the south, but the real danger lay in the northwest with Russia’s old enemy, Sweden.

Skärgårdsflottan: Sweden’s Secret Weapon

One of Catherine’s few and most damaging mistakes was to allow her talented and ruthless cousin, Gustavus III, to take absolute power in Sweden in August 1772. He was to prove a formidable enemy, both to Russia and to her ally, Denmark-Norway. The king worked hard to rebuild the Swedish Navy in order to assist the new coastal fleet to take Zealand and force Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden. With Norway in his grasp, the king hoped to expand Sweden’s maritime trade and power yet further.

The building of a skärgårdsflotta, or coastal fleet, had been underway since the disastrous 1741-43 war against Russia – when the lack of just such a fleet had enabled Russia to take Finland a second time. While the Karlskrona Admiralty wanted large ships of the line, the government back in Stockholm pushed for a strong coastal fleet. This fleet was to be under the command of the Army, with majors in charge of ships. Rejecting the Mediterranean-style galley, the Swedes sought something that could combine sails and oars with a large number of guns. The typical galley was poorly armed, weak in structure and used too many sailors and oarsmen. Sweden, with Finland, had barely 2 million inhabitants, which severely limited the pool of manpower for the coastal fleet. Luckily, the Swedes had an outstanding ship designer and architect in Fredrik Henrik af Chapman – the son of an immigrant British naval engineer. Chapman designed a special ‘coastal frigate’ (skärgårdsfregatt) that could sail or be rowed underway but which had the same number of guns as a frigate. It was far superior to the galley in most aspects and would wreak havoc on the Russian galleys at Svensksund. It was most vulnerable while underway – when it could not fire its guns – but it had huge potential.

Chapman, now Chief Naval Engineer, designed three types of coastal frigates of varying size and artillery strength. The smallest Pojama-class galley was least interesting from a design point of view. The Udema-class galley was designed such that its guns were stowed away amidships on the gundeck while the vessel was underway and rolled into place only when it was prepared for battle. The other two lighter classes, Turuma and Hemmema, were more conventional ‘coastal frigates’ without the stowing capacity.

With the King’s enthusiastic backing, these new ships were mass produced with amazing speed and cost efficiency. All of the new coastal ships combined a low silhouette with high firepower for such small vessels, good manoeuvrability, and fairly good sailing performance, offering relatively high speeds when propelled by oars. In battle, they could be used for supporting fire or landing troops. Their only drawback was the need for a naval escort when underway, their low radius of action and dependence on transport ships for supplies. With 14 benches for oars, the galley had a crew of 48-60 men, not counting troops. It was armed with several 181b (8kg) and 24 (11kg) guns. Thanks to another of Chapman’s ingenious innovations, these guns had an unobstructed field of fire since the upper parts of the stern and helm was detachable. In this, Chapman was about two centuries ahead of his time.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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